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Kenta Maeda, Statcast, and what it means for the Twins

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You don’t have to throw hard to be effective

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As you now have read a million times, last night the Twins traded highly regarded flamethrower Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers (who then traded him to Boston) for starting pitcher Kenta Maeda.

If you have read any of my content from this off season, I was pretty adamant that the Twins would make a move I didn’t expect. With the Twins’ signing of Josh Donaldson and the trade for Kenta Maeda, the front office has now made two such deals.

There is so much to talk about with this trade, much of it centering on the Twins being willing to trade away Graterol, whose velocity is something that lovingly reminds Twins fans that we no longer are an organization of pitch-to-contact. The fact that Graterol was originally groomed as a starting pitcher that could hit 100 mph with regularity offered a glimmer of hope that the Twins could finally develop their first bonafide ace since Johan Santana (who was a Rule-5 pick, anyway.)

When looking at Maeda’s stats in his first four seasons in the MLB, there seems to be something lacking. After all, he only has a single season with 30 starts, has never pitched more than 175.2 innings, and posted an ERA above 4.00 in two of the last three years. That can’t be the sort of impact pitching we were looking for, can it?

Sure it can. If you haven’t previously met, let me introduce you to Baseball Savant’s Statcast, some of the most useful and accessible baseball analytics known to man:

What the heck is this and what does it tell us? Basically, MLB tracks almost literally everything that moves on the baseball field, and combines that with advanced statistics to give us a more solid understanding of how good players are.

The list above is a pretty traditional layout for pitchers for us to use as an evaluation. There is a lot to look at, but some of it is simple: Maeda’s fastball, which averages 92.1 MPH, is 37th percentile for overall fastball velocity while it ranks in the 56th percentile for spin rate. He is in the 73rd percentile for K% while being in the 96th percentile for Exit Velocity and in the 95th percentile for Hard Hit %.

What does all of that mumbo-jumbo mean? It means that Maeda doesn’t throw that hard, but he gets a good number of strikeouts and is ELITE at limiting hard contact (which is a good thing).

And Statcast goes even deeper, giving us breakdowns specific to Maeda’s pitch usage:

In his four years in the majors, Maeda has altered his arsenal a bit. Last season he primarily threw his fastball and slider against righties and then his fastball, changeup and curve against lefties. He occasionally mixed in a sinker as well.

His fastball has good spin but still gets hit hard, with a .517 slugging percentage against last year. That said, he uses it mostly as a set up pitch, throwing it less than his slider against righties and less than his changeup against lefties. And those two pitches are dominant.

Opposing hitters slugged just .288 against his slider in 2019, and just .317 against his changeup. His slider features an elite 40% whiff rate, which is 36.2% for that changeup.

That is a very solid three pitch mix, and according to Baseball Savant’s pitcher similarity scores, Maeda’s mix is very similar to that of his new Twins teammate Jake Odorizzi.

As we know, Odorizzi took a major step forward under the tutelage of Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson, increasing fastball velocity and becoming a far more effective pitcher—enough so to earn a $17.6 million salary through the Qualifying Offer for this year.

While Maeda’s stuff is similar to Odorizzi’s, his 2019 output was similar to that of Michael Pineda. Maeda’s 4.04 ERA/ 3.95 FIP/ 4.04 xFIP and 2.5 fWAR bears a striking resemblance to Pineda’s 4.01 ERA/ 4.02 FIP/ 4.30 xFIP and 2.7 fWAR. Both pitchers would have likely accrued more fWAR if they had remained in the starting rotation for the entire year, with both pitcher’s making exactly 26 starts (although Maeda made 11 relief appearances). So if we thought of Pineda as a solid #3 pitcher, Maeda is likely in the same company or perhaps even slightly better. There is also the fact that Maeda has 32.2 postseason innings under his belt, mostly as a reliever, with a 3.31 ERA in those innings. That is incredibly important for a team trying to make the most of its window.

So is a solid number three pitcher with some postseason experience “impact pitching?” I would think so, even if it isn’t as much impact as we had hoped for at the beginning of the off season. Maeda is a guy with a career 9.79 K/9 and 26.4 K%, both very good, while limiting walks to a 2.99 BB/9 and 7.3 BB% to earn a 3.71 FIP. Those numbers aren’t shabby— in fact it is the exact same career FIP as Zack Wheeler (who has worse career K% and BB% numbers than Maeda) who signed for some $120 million this off season.

And all of these positives are easy to see before we even talk about Maeda’s contract. Maeda has four years of team control remaining (including the 2020 season) for a base salary of three million dollars along with a signing bonus of $125K. He then has significant performance bonuses based on innings pitched and games started. Andrew Thares from Twins Daily did the math for me to figure out that if Maeda has a 30-start, 170 inning season, he would get paid $9.375 million overall. If Maeda gets to those numbers of starts and innings, he will likely be worth far more than the $9.375 the Twins would have to pay him.

Maeda’s incentive laden contract also sheds light on his overall statistics the last few years. Remember when I said that Maeda only has one year with 30+ starts? It makes plenty of sense that the Dodgers moved him into the bullpen in the middle of the last three seasons, keeping him below a key bonus threshold of 30 starts (worth $1.5 million) and limiting his innings, for which he earns $250K for every 10 innings beyond his first 90 overall.

The Dodgers have been quite deep with starters the last few years, which allowed them to micro manage Maeda’s usage. It certainly benefits the Twins now since Maeda has far less wear and tear on his arm than he would have if he started 32 games each of the last few years. With Michael Pineda and Rich Hill coming back in mid season, maybe the Twins can try a similar approach if Maeda doesn’t pitch well enough to keep his rotation spot outright.

With 4 years left on his deal, Maeda’s team control fixes a major gap the Twins fought this offseason. As we know, the Twins had only one starting pitcher on lock at the beginning of the off season, Jose Berrios. Signing four starters for a competitive team is incredibly difficult to do year in and year out. The Twins now have Berrios and Maeda long term, with Pineda for sure coming back in 2021 as well. That leaves just two spots to fill for the 2021 season, maybe less if the Twins can resign Jake Odorizzi (who is almost guaranteed to check out free agency if he does well this year) or if they get a great performance throughout the year from one of their rookie starters.

Thoughts

Losing Brusdar Graterol is hard. He throws harder than any previous Twins pitcher and has an incredible amount of promise, even if he only ends up being a great reliever as opposed to a high end starter.

But that fact that the Twins front office was comfortable trading him suggests that they only saw him as a future reliever. We already knew they would start him in the bullpen this year, so it is not much of a surprise.

So the Twins were able to acquire a major need—cheap, long term control of a proven starting pitcher—for an unproven but promising bullpen piece.

The acquisition of Kenta Maeda is a move that is going to make the Twins a better team in 2020 while also providing some stability in the starting rotation for years to come. It is a fantastic final addition to a great off season.